Backwards Compatibility

This weekend I took the Chinatown bus down to New York to visit my army special forces friends Danny and Mike and to meet their army special forces friend Zack, all up from North Carolina. Whenever Danny makes his way up the East Coast, a bunch of us convene: a few from Boston, a handful from New York, and one from DC. We’re a geographically diverse group of friends, but that doesn’t stop us. We make an effort. And that’s the problem—I think maybe we’re a bit misdirected.

Saturday, we went to a sports bar called Proof. (I immediately wondered if there was so big a math crowd in this part of the city as to sustain a bar, but I quickly realized that they probably didn’t mean a mathematical proof. Eighty proof was more the feel of the place.) The floors were the kind of dirty that black, matte surfaces always are, which set up a visual cue for the rest of the decor to follow. Everything about the bar was dark hip in that cold, uninviting way that encourages you to have fun to prove to others that you’re having fun. The neon lights that pierced through from behind the bar coupled with the bartendress’s bad dye job and caked make-up put me in the psychological dugeon of a Celine Dion concert. Proof relies on happy hour gimmicks which simultaneously feature Bud Light and a multitude of flavoured Stoli. (You could tell from the looks of the clientele that they had found their niche.) I’m not sure anyone in the bar knew why they were watching a football game. I certainly didn’t.

We established early on that no one in our party had any opinion either for or against the Colts or the Ravens. A lady bordering us said she liked the Colts, so one of us loudly cheered for her team. Lisa, Danny, and I left our uncomfortable and unsociable seats and headed to the burger joint next door just before half-time, where we almost had time enough to talk. The guy who had dragged us to Proof didn’t pay attention to the game at all. I overheard his girlfriend trying to explain to him who Adam Vinatieri is. It was no use; he wasn’t interested. By the time he realized that the three of us had left, he mobilized the rest of troops. We were going to leave. To sit down. To have dinner. Somewhere else.

Earlier that day I caught some awful brunch with my good friend Baca. We went to some up-and-coming place in Nolita called Public. Its theme: public spaces. The menu comes on a clip board. Apparently public spaces are industrial and water-stained. I had two poached eggs on garlic yogurt with kirmizi biber butter. I pressed our waitress before ordering and she admitted that “No, it’s not really butter.” She was right—it’s an oil with too much flavour for its own good. I let the hipster get the best of me. It could’ve been because I was wearing herring bone. Still, I wanted to go out to brunch. Baca merely accommodated me. Sorry, Baca.

Now here’s my point. In both instances, I hated the place we went to. But the sports bar really left me angry while, the food aside, I had a really good time at brunch. So, on the bus ride back to Boston, I started thinking why is that? And the secret is a problem in good user design.

Software designers sometimes leave in features that could be considered obsolete, needlessly complicated and confusing, or otherwise just bad in the name of backwards compatibility. The idea is that even if it’s not necessarily the best way a thing can be done, it’s a way that the user knows and therefore will expect will work, if poorly. And that’s right. The user might very well expect to see an old feature in a new realease. But expectation isn’t a good enough justification for doing something. It’s sort of like saying, “The user should be abused because the user is used to being abused.” (You might’ve heard the argument, “He may be the Devil, but at least he’s my Devil.”) People do this sort of thing all the time in all fields. Decisions made in the past are often carried well passed their realm of usefulness into the future for the sake of mindless adherence to tradition. Not to do so is like admitting your were wrong, or at least that you’re wrong now. Why do you think we won’t revise our plan for Iraq? Designers who throw in features they know to less than productive to ensure backwards compatibility have confused a means as an end.

Software is supposed to be a vehicle to help people do things that they otherwise could not have done on their own. That is, the software—like alcohol or sports bars–is supposed to be a servant, not the master. But that’s the difference between my two stories. In the first, we went to Proof because someone thought we were supposed to watch the game. Really, no one wanted to—the Pats played on Sunday, not Saturday. (We all went to dinner during the second and arguably more important half, you remember.) But brunch? I wanted to go brunch. The fact that the food sucked was only incidental. I wanted to spend time dining with Baca. And Public, bad though it was, did the trick. It provided a forum for us to catch up. That’s what I expected to do this weekend. Instead, we often got caught up doing things that are supposed to be fun rather than actually having fun.

The lesson learned is an old one: hang out with your friends at a bar, don’t hang out with a bar in front of your friends.

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